Sin aqua non
Dams are making a comeback
IT WAS political theatre as usual. Two demonstrators from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called International Rivers disrupted the opening ceremony of the fifth World Water Forum, a week-long gathering in Istanbul of the great and good who work on matters watery which concludes on Sunday March 22nd. The demonstrators unfurled a banner saying “No Risky Dams” in metre-high letters. They were detained and thrown out of the country.
It might have happened at any international gathering any time in the past ten years. Yet this time, the demonstration was misleading. Behind the scenes at the forum opposition was ebbing: dams are making a come back. “We need the water-storage capacity,” says Olcay Ünver, the co-ordinator of this year’s “Water Development Report”, a flagship publication of the conference. “We need more dams.”
Dam has been a dirty word for years. In 1994, 2,000 NGOs signed the Manibeli declaration calling for a moratorium on dam-building by the World Bank, then the largest financier of barrages. By the time of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 1997, the damning of dams was almost complete. The bank and big donors such as Britain’s Department for International Development scaled back support for dams; in that year, the World Commission on Dams was set up which attempted to impose severe constraints on dam-builders. The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) says the number of dams completed annually fell by more than half between 1980 and 2000, to just over 200.
Now, some NGOs are working with their former enemies. The World Wildlife Fund has an agreement with the Mekong River Commission and the Asian Development Bank to help decide where dams on the Mekong should go and how to minimise their drawbacks. It and Nature Conservancy work with the International Hydropower Association to write new standards for dam building that might actually be implemented (earlier ones were ignored). The numbers of finished dams is back up to about 250 a year.
“We recognise these things are going to be built,” says David Tickner, the WWF’s head of freshwater programmes, “so the question is, how do we make sure the benefits are felt by those who need them and the social and environmental impacts are minimised.”
Two developments influence the change of heart. The first is global warming. This has been a boon to all forms of clean or renewable energy, including hydropower. Richard Taylor of the International Hydropower Association that the sector’s order books are full even in recession. More important, climate change may be changing the earth’s hydrological cycle, producing more extreme floods and droughts. That makes it more important to tame the peaks and store water through the droughts. “The world needs more water storage,” says Luis Berga, ICOLD’s president, “and dams are means to that end.”
The other factor is the economic meltdown hitting poor countries. It has made them more sensitive to the importance of reliable flows of water and helped turn African countries in into vocal supporters of new dams. “We really, really need water storage for irrigation, flood control and hydro-energy,” says Washington Mutayoba, Tanzania’s director of water resources. He points out that, if you map his country’s GDP against rainfall, you get an almost perfect match. What makes the biggest difference to the economy is not exports, or the budget deficit, or some measure of government effectiveness–it is water. Poor countries which store hardly any water and use only 5% of their hydropower potential see no reason why they should listen to lectures about the evils of dams from rich ones which use them far more extensively.
Soon they might not have to. One of the other effects of the credit crunch has been to make development banks from Brazil, India and China more promising sources of infrastructure finance. These banks also tend to be less sensitive to the clamour of NGOs. As opposition to dams moderates in the West, dam builders may soon find it easier to ignore.
- Posted in: Water